HL Deb 11 May 1981 vol 420 cc345-53

4 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Bellwin)

My Lords, with the leave of the House I will now repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services. The Statement is as follows:

"The Government have now completed their review of policy, in the light of the report by the working party under the chairmanship of Professor Lawther, set up by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. The Government accept the general conclusion of the report that current policy needs to be tightened in a number of respects, building on what has already been achieved.

"The report makes clear the need to improve our knowledge of the effects of lead in our environment, and particularly of possible effects on children's intelligence. Some studies have been completed on this, and more are in hand; the Government have invited the Medical Research Council to commission a major study in this area.

"The report emphasises the importance of a comprehensive approach towards tackling the problems of lead pollution. I have placed in the Vote Office a paper outlining the Government's response to the detailed recommendations in the report. In this Statement I shall deal with the main points.

"First, paint. The real problem here is not paint currently on sale to the public—most of which is virtually lead-free—but old paintwork in many houses and other buildings. This will be tackled by information and advice to local authorities, and by increased emphasis in health education programmes on ways to counter the hazards. There will be early discussion with the local authority associations on this and on other matters concerning local authorities.

"Second, water. High levels of lead can occur in drinking water in some areas. The problem arises only in the minority of households which have both lead-solvent water and lead plumbing. Water authorities have been working to identify the problem areas, and are taking steps to tackle the problem at source. This work is being pressed ahead as rapidly as possible. Meanwhile water authorities, local authorities and area health authorities are being asked to co-operate to provide information and advice to people who may be affected.

"In some cases, and particularly where drinking water comes from lead-lined tanks, the only answer is to alter the plumbing. The Government propose that such work should be eligible for home improvement grants; this will be considered in consultation with the local authority associations. My right honourable friend will be taking corresponding action in Scotland, where there is a particularly severe problem in those areas where lead-lined tanks are common.

"Third, food. New regulations reducing the maximum permitted levels in food offered for sale came into force last year. The Food Additives and Contaminants Committee have already been asked to study the implications of the use of lead solder in cans in their study of metals in canned foods.

"Finally, emissions of lead to air. The Lawther Report recommends an air quality standard for lead of 2 micrograms per cubic metre. The Government agree that this standard, which is also proposed in a draft European Communities directive, should be adopted.

"So far as the control of industrial emissions is concerned, current powers are adequate to allow the proposed standard to be met. But, as the figures quoted by Lawther show, the standard cannot be met in some areas of heavy traffic. Petrol-lead emissions may also result in high levels of lead in dust, and contribute to lead in food.

"The Government have decided that the maximum permitted lead content of petrol should be reduced as far as is possible, without ruling out the continued use of car engines of present design—that is, from the present limit of 0.40 grammes per litre to 0.15 grammes per litre. This will reduce by about two-thirds lead emissions from cars some 10 years earlier than any other practicable method.

"The aim will be to introduce the new limit not later than the end of 1985. The oil industry will need to install substantial new plant in order to produce the new low-lead petrol in sufficient quantities; and we shall discuss the practical requirements with the industry. There will in time be some increase in the cost of producing petrol, but we believe that such extra costs are reasonable in relation to the environmental benefits of an early and substantial reduction in lead emissions.

"Professor Lawther's report warned of the need to take further effective action to deal with lead pollution. The measures I have announced today show the Government's acceptance of the importance of his report and our intention to take all necessary steps to reduce the hazards arising from lead in our environment".

4.5 p.m.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I want first to thank the Minister for reading that Statement which has been made in another place, but I should like to point out right away that I find it slightly misleading that the Statement should say that the working party set up under the chairmanship of Professor Lawther was, set up by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Services"— that is the Minister speaking, not me. In point of fact this working party was set up in December 1978 by the Labour Government and, in this House on 14th March 1979, in answer to a Question for Written Answer tabled by the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, my noble friend Lord Wells-Pestell spelled out the terms of reference of the working party and also confirmed that it had started work in December 1978. I do not know what the procedure is, but I suggest that this should be altered in order to put the record right.

I now come to the main body of the Statement. I can see the emphasis that the Government give—and I do not blame the particular Minister who was around at the time for his adoption of Professor Lawther and his working party. We welcome very much what has been said on paint and food but, when it comes to water, there are some questions that I should like to ask. Do the water authorities have the resources to carry out the work that will be needed? Have the Government any idea what the costs will be, and why should householders receive only the general improvement grant of 50 per cent? What would happen if people could not afford the change? In a case like this, where it is so important for the community, the community should pay, and I should like to ask the Minister how this fits in with the Government's insistence on cuts all round.

The principal issue here is what the Lawther Committee's working party was mainly concerned with—namely, lead in petrol. We believe that what the Government have proposed is entirely the wrong decision. Is it not inevitable that environmental considerations, health considerations and a developing public opinion will all combine to make this halfway-house decision obsolete before it can be implemented? Certainly, so far as the Opposition is concerned we shall seek to go for lead-free petrol as soon as the opportunity occurs. I should like to ask the Minister, what will be the cost of moving from 0.15 grammes of lead per litre to zero-lead petrol when that step has to be taken?

What we are seeing here is really a policy of procrastination. We have already had a number of reports: we have had the Lawther Report; we have had the Wodip Report, which is the Working Party on Transport Lead in Petrol—I think that is the right interpretation of it. This was presented in July 1979. The Lawther Report on Health Hazards was presented in March 1980 and since then we have had further researches by Dr. Lansdown of Great Ormond Street and Dr. Yule of London University, who incidentally were both members of the Lawther Committee. This has significantly moved the balance of the argument in favour of the health and environmental considerations. Last year the GLC scientific department carried out a study into the effect of lead on children in playgrounds of schools in the ILEA areas and came to the very firm conclusion that the emission of lead was having a deleterious effect on the children's performances in school.

The Statement refers to the EEC levels, but although the EEC levels are set at 0.15 maximum, would the Minister not agree that it would reflect great credit on this country if we pioneered a lead-free situation? Would he confirm that it is perfectly lawful under EEC directives for petrol companies to offer and motorists to buy lead-free petrol?

There has been tremendous delay all the way through since the last committees and working parties reported. One suspects that there has probably been a tremendous dog-fight between the Treasury on the one hand and the Departments of Environment and Health on the other. I should like to know why there has been no White Paper, which we requested, setting out all the alternative considerations and costs so that informed debate could be held throughout the country before the decision was announced. While we think another major study is necessary, what is the point in coming to a decision which is going to be extremely costly and lengthen the time before we get lead-free petrol by setting up another commission to inquire into it? Does the Minister not agree that the absorption of lead into the body from any source, whether from air, water or food, is an evil? And what is the Govern- ment's assessment of the effect of lead poisoning on children at the two alternatives of 0.15 and zero?

Next we come to industry. Is it not the case that industry wants the major decision taken now? To go for 0.15 now and move to zero later is the worst of both worlds. It is going to mean enormously increased costs to industry; they have to make the adjustments twice. The report in yesterday's Observer stated industry's view on this matter. Finally, what is the Government's estimate of the additional cost to industry and motorists of a two-stage operation? I am sorry to have asked so many questions, but I consider this is such an important Statement and its effects are so important for the whole community that we need to delve into it pretty deeply.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, while thanking the Minister for repeating the Statement, and agreeing with the noble Baroness that this is a vitally important subject, may I ask the Minister whether he does not think that sufficient studies have already been undertaken to render the proposed MRC work unnecessary? Is he not aware that in addition to the work of Lansdown and others at Great Ormond Street there have been a considerable number of studies, by David and Needleman in the United States, by Garnys Freeman and Smythe in Sydney and by a host of other workers whose literature has been reviewed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency? Does he not think that the evidence accumulated is sufficient to establish beyond all reasonable doubt that the neuro-behavioural effects of lead on children are completely proven?

My Lords, turning to the question of water, do I understand correctly that removal of lead lined tanks would be eligible for improvement grant, but where you have only a combination of lead plumbing and lead solvent water the householder will be able to look only for advice from the local authorities, water authorities or public health authorities? Does the noble Lord not think that the improvement grant should extend to plumbing as well as to tanks? What advice could the authorities concerned give to the householder other than that the plumbing in question should be removed?

Turning to the proposal on petrol, we give a muted welcome to the idea that the concentranton should be reduced to 0.15 grammes per litre by 1985. We agree with the noble Baroness that this is an insufficient rate of progress and that it should have been done much earlier. How could the Japanese have produced lead-free petrol by 1975? How could the Swedes be planning to introduce lead-free petrol by 1985, the Australians to produce lead-free petrol by 1985, and the United States already have a substantial number of filling stations selling lead-free petrol now? Is it not clear that this is the way the whole world is moving, and that if we continue to produce vehicles designed to run on 0.15 grammes per litre we shall have to modify our cars and commercial vehicles for sale in overseas markets, thus making the costs of our motor industry higher than necessary?

Finally, could the noble Lord say anything about the long-term intentions of the Government? If it is necessary, as the oil industry claims, to give so much notice of changes, ought they not to be told now if it is our policy in the long run after 1985, as we very much hope, to move to lead-free petrol?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, to deal first with the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, I did know that the original study was set up under the previous Administration, but it is now this Administration which is charged with doing something about the conclusions which it has reached, and that is why we are making this Statement today.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, with great respect, I think we should have it right on the record. The Minister said that it was set up but we are doing the report. I think he must either agree or not agree that the working party under Professor Lawther was set up by the last Government. This is a fact.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I thought that was exactly what I had said.

Several noble Lords


Lord Bellwin

Well, that is what I meant to say. I thought I was paying tribute to them for having set it up.

With regard to cost, so far as the water aspect is concerned, the cost estimates are about £4½ million. I think the important point the noble Baroness raised, as also did the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is whether or not one should have gone at this stage to a lead-free situation. As with so many things in these matters, one has to take a view. What we were and are most concerned about is the quickest way in which we can make a substantial impact upon this situation. The view is that the quickest way is by doing what we are now proposing. If we were to go for the lead-free situation—which would have some of the advantages the noble Baroness and the noble Lord have mentioned so far as industry is concerned in terms of time and probably cost—the fact is that we would be talking of at least 10 to 15-year periods, and we think the need is a great and immediate one now. It is a long enough time in any case that we are talking about before it becomes fully effective.

This is a judgment that we have had to make. What it really amounts to is that we are going for most of the loaf now rather than the whole of the loaf later. The fact is also that the great majority of existing engines cannot run on lead-free petrol, Firm planning for lead-free petrol by both the motor and the oil industries would have to wait until at least all Community member states had agreed. Then it would take time for new engines to become available, and it would take 10 to 15 years for existing engines to come to the end of their useful lives and be phased out together with lead in petrol. We think that, rather than take that as an option, what we are doing is the best course to follow.

The noble Baroness also asked why should we not take the lead and push Europe into the lead-free situation. There is no doubt that if our Community partners want to explore the scope of prescribing "lead-free" we would certainly want to play our part in that, although it must be said that at present none of them seems to be very keen to do so. By coming to a .15 situation we are, in fact, joining Denmark and Germany. which have the lowest standards in the Community—I say "lowest", but it could be "highest" depending which way one looks at it. We believe that this meets the air quality standard which the Lawther working party and our partners in the European Community feel adequate to reflect the health evidence.

I do not know whether I can cover much more any of the other points which the noble Baroness made. If I have missed any of the number of questions which she put to me, she knows that I shall always write to her. I should also like to stress that when I mentioned in the Statement the paper which has been placed in your Lordships' House, it is, of course, in the Printed Paper Office—it has another name in another place. I would not agree with the noble Baroness that industry says that this is the worst of all worlds. As I have said, we have had to take a balanced view about this matter.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked whether sufficient studies had not already been made. I think that he would agree with me that this is an ongoing subject. It is true that a great deal has been learnt, but I am sure that he would agree that there is a great deal more that has to be learnt. I think that that would be justification for continued studies. If we were simply to use as an excuse for delay or non-action that further studies should be undertaken, then I think that his point would be valid. I should like to stress to him that we are certainly not using that as an excuse for doing nothing, as I hope I am showing in what we are doing today. As regards the other point which he made about the effect of the removal of only lead-lined tanks by grant and the question of whether plumbing should also receive a grant, I must say that I entirely agree with him. I think that that is so. If there is any doubt about whether that is so, then I shall take the matter up and make it clear.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord will see when he looks at his own text in Hansard tomorrow that he did say that the Lawther Committee was set up by his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. I am glad to know that he is now prepared to correct that and to admit that it was set up by the last Government.

Will the Government accept that there are two points in this Statement which I believe will be very generally welcomed in the country? The first is that the changing of old lead tanks and lead plumbing will become eligible for housing improvement grants and the second is that our lead in petrol limit will come down from .4 per litre to .15. It seems to me that both of those changes begin to put an end to an era of almost intolerable carelessness by Governments of both parties as regards the health of our people and that there is no reaction that the House can have but to welcome these with open arms. Naturally I share the opinion which has been expressed so far that as soon as we can reach zero the better. However, I think that the Government's point that no Community country is going for zero at the moment is one that perhaps must hold us back, to our regret.

Finally, I should like to ask a particular question. I have read in the press that the cost of the measures as regards lead in petrol will be £450 million. Can the Government confirm that and, if so, can they say upon whom those costs will fall? What is that an estimate of the cost of?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I see from reading the Statement again that what was said previously about the setting up of the committee was quite right. I was wrong in the first place, but I thought that I had put it right when I answered previously. However, I gladly confirm that fact.

I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, says and I am grateful to him for his observations. He has asked upon whom will the cost of the grants fall. It will fall basically upon the existing resources, but we must have discussions with the local authority associations to decide how to make the necessary adjustments and at this point I do not have the detailed answer to that matter. However, clearly that is the amount of money that we expect it will take.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, I am loath to prolong the discussion, but my question about the £450 million was referring not to lead tanks, but to lead in petrol.

Lord Bellwin

Yes, my Lords; I am sorry, that is the cost to the industry.

Lord Somers

My Lords, 1985 seems rather a long time to have to wait. Can the Minister say whether it is not possible to extract the existing lead content in petrol already on sale?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I raised that very point myself when querying the Statement that I was to make. I am advised that it may be that there will be an improvement on that time, but I cannot give any commitment to that extent. Clearly it is in everybody's interests to do it as quickly as possible and I assure the noble Lord and indeed the whole House that the Government will not just sit back and let it go. We are very anxious that this should be done at the earliest possible moment.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I am sorry to come back to this matter and I apologise to the Minister for putting so many questions to him. It was all done so quickly that I did not have a chance to "sub" my own questioning so he was landed with the lot. I would like, if possible, to have the answers in writing when he gets them. However, I should like to say, having listened carefully to what he said in reply not only to me, but to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, that it appears that the Government do not seem to be sufficiently apprised of how public opinion is moving in this area and having reached the point of talking about.15 the noble Lord has not yet really gone into the question which I tried to press him on as regards the cost. By doing it in two bites it will be not only very much more unhealthy for the country, but very much more costly for industry, for the oil companies and for individual motorists. I beg him to use what I am sure is his considerable influence to make the Government think about this again and to discuss the matter further and really consider reducing it to zero. Instead of reducing it to.15 by 1985 it would be much better to have it on a lowering graph and to reach zero in seven or eight years, which I believe is what industry and the oil companies believe can be done.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I can only add that this obviously has been considered at great length and in great depth. Our major concern was to get action at the earliest possible time. This we feel is the quickest way to get very close to where we want to be. The noble Baroness and, indeed, I think the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, took the other view—to go now for the "lead-free" completely and take, according to what the noble Baroness has said, seven or eight years, but I am advised that it will be 10 to 15 years. I do not know the answer to that. The fact is that we want action as quickly as possible and this is the line that we have taken at present.

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